Fail Blog 1: Falling short on the farm :)

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If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate. -Thomas J. Watson (founder of IBM)

As opposed to smooth sailing and efficient execution, my PC service is mostly comprised of a huge number of ideas and attempts. These attempts are put out with great frequency (shotgun/machine gun method) so I can determine and pursue what will stick and maintain in this context. For example, I’ll try to grow some beet or parsnip seeds, see if any students will help build a beehive, try to introduce a nutritious food for dinner, etc.This can be contrasted to 1 very well thought out idea and project you’ve got everything invested in. Pros and cons for each. For me, on the daily, I prefer 50 small helping attempts, down to a smile for the ‘crazy’ guy on the street. If I’m in a mindful spot and pull it off it comes together into a beneficent action based spirituality.

We do many great things as PCVs, but the facebook and blog photos often show only the results of long efforts, challenges and frustrating solitary work. This is probably what really makes PCVs special: we’re busting our butts and charging it daily – like an alien swimming upstream in a crowd of misunderstanding and sometimes blatant disapproval. Still, we stick it out and try to help for 2 years. We “beast it.”

So, for every good looking photo, vegetable or project there’s likely 5 that didn’t go as well. This first ‘fail blog’ post will explore some of those failed attempts on the farm and in the garden. Have a look and a laugh.

Warning: my sense of humor after a year here may seem a little ‘off’ – most of these things have to be laughed at or interpreted in such a way that helps you sleep at night. You can’t get too upset here or you’d have a heart attack every week. Enjoy 🙂

We ‘double dig’ and prepare 18 garden beds for corn, hand plant 144 corn seedlings and water them twice a day for months. While I was back in the States visiting family, all of the corn was stolen.

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“Soil test” results. Everything looks “OK” but still nothing grows. I learn I don’t know how to farm or garden at all! Yields are low and things are dying :).

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After the tractor plows the field we hand plant 300+ ‘short sorghum’ seeds in 5 different test beds to determine which soil amendment works best (lime, chicken manure, compost, IMO, etc.). While back in the states, weeds overtake the test plots and there’s no sorghum to be found. Plus side: i found out IMO helps weeds grow huge!

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Bee swarm fail: a crazy man throws a rock right into this wild hive. School campus is terrorized by bees for 4 hours. Students, teachers, animals all run in screaming terror. We light 30 plus fires to smoke the bees and calm them down. It’s basically the bee apocalypse on school campus! Win: seeing several grown men run with plastic bags on their heads screaming high pitched “ahhhhhhhs!” Nobody was hurt, just their pride. We cleared this hive out the next week to get over a gallon of honey.

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We try to make fermented plant juice (FPJ) korean natural farming (KNF) soil amendment and it dries out in a few days. Normally you’d have lots of extracted liquid, we had a dry old sugary salad.

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Tree graft fail! We we’re all really happy to learn tree grafting and try it on some mangos. None of our grafts worked, we tried 16 of them :).

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Teamwork! This photo looks like such a success. But, yep the budwood in my left hand turned into a black dead stick in 3 weeks. Beard win though 🙂

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We make ‘tree guards’ so we can protect out-planted trees from livestock. This turned into an effigy of that idea and rotted away over the next 6 months.

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Looks so full of promise doesn’t it? Teaching my little brother Mustafa how to husk, sow and grow mango. Fail: goats come and eat it 32 seconds after this photo :). Ok, it was actually 24 seconds.

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After 4 months of nursing and growing many beds of onions we end up with a yield of 3lbs :(. I start to really realize that I don’t know how to garden :).

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The carrot harvest comes up short. Problems of theft, poor germination, dry soil and low soil fertility.

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This is what can happen when you have $ to get water :). This isn’t my farm, but it shows what a funded operation is capable of.

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St. Stephen was a martyr stoned to death for speaking his beliefs. Similarly, this bee catcher box was stoned by an unknown villager. The top bars fell down and all the bees flew away. I wasn’t laughing this day :), more like “wtf!!!” lol, but looking back i’m ok with it.

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Acting cool like I know what i’m doing making biochar: fail. I turn my back to go get water and have to sprint 50 yards back to the pile that’s totally engulfed in flames. I snap this pic after I put it out. Luckily nobody was around to see me pretend like everything’s under control. Still, biochar shouldn’t look like the engine of a locomotive.

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Make sure your knife is sharp fail :(. This is the first chicken I killed. It didn’t go as ‘smooth’ as I thought it would and took some  frantic sawing to get the job done. Now I always keep my knife really sharp, I owe its life to teaching me that. Sorry!

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I make IMO with a friend but the rice dries out and is unusable.

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The school purchases 300 chickens to sell for meat. We end up not marketing or selling them at the right time (i.e. 2 months after birth), run out of food and lose a huge amount of money on the project. Since then the school officials have not had an interest to do poultry again :). “Move product when its ready” fail?

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Shelter fail. My ‘IMO house’ structure is blown down and repaired monthly until termites finally eat it. Good riddance!

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Early days on the farm when I still liked cucumbers. All these shown below, and every subsequent cucumber plant grown, has been destroyed by bugs that lay worms in the fruit. We’ve planted 100+ cucumber plants and I’ve eaten 3-4 cucumbers :(. I’m done with em.

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Rain fail. The 2014 rainy season was really weak. The photos below show our coos (millet) harvest from 2014 (left) and then from the previous year, 2013 (right), when there was good rain. Yeah, um, farming, something to be said about variables you don’t control as a major part of your profession.

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Pit compost started and forgotten about. This has just been a hole in the ground for 14 months. Lol, here its funny how you can just procrastinate and do nothing for so long. “Slowly slowly” as they say. Maybe too slow :).

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Four test beds of ‘reds red’ sweet sorghum grown to try and press for sorghum syrup. Birds dominate it all seeds and we abandon the project, fail!

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Food storage fail. Our findo/findi harvest is stacked on a table to dry. It doesn’t dry and ends up staying moist from being stacked to heavily and tightly together. Some findo gets moldy and some infested by bugs.

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We have to re-dry the findo harvest so we can thresh the seed of the grass. Garden is looking green though.

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Beehive fail. Wax moth and other creatures take up residence in our beehive during the rainy season.

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“Mempato” (grey plum) fail. We gather 20 seeds from this tree and none of them germinate. I later learn that the germination rate on these is around 5-10%. Plus side, I learn how to say “these tree seeds are very stubborn” in Mandinka.

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Potato harvest comes up less then desired. For all the time in bed preparation, months of watering and harvesting we may have been better off going to the market with a few dollars and buying this amount of potatoes. Its the journey that matters right?!

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Germination fail. Lab Lab beans bust out with very low germination. Luckily, we saved some seeds and are currently trying to multiply them.

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Who’s hungry for pumpkin!? Well, try another garden, us here at “6% germination farms” don’t have enough to share. Plus these all died 2 months later :). Come back soon!

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Collards fail. We managed to germinate a lot of collards but they ended up all dying and being eaten by bugs when we transplanted them to their permanent home. I thought I saved them with a bug net, mulch, and fertilizer but, while they improved greatly, they didn’t make it in end.

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Short sorghum is planted in the big farm field. Very few germinate and the loose goats and pigs in Farafenni eat the other ones.

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Our garden is evaluated to get a price quote for a better water system. This information is later lost in transit.

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There is findo in this field, as planned, but the late starting and inconsistent rains allowed the weeds to grow quicker than the findo. Findo normally would out-compete weeds once established but in our case the weeds won. We still got findo but it took a lot of effort to separate it from the weeds.

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Labor force fail. With 3+ acres of millet to manage and weed, a garden, the bees and the heat we don’t have enough labor force to do everything with just 4 of us. The weeds aren’t removed as best as possible and this results in lower yields and some other crop loss.

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Post harvest mango fail. 85% of these mango’s end up spoiling because we store them on the floor, we don’t find a buyer, animals eat them, we have no storage case and its too hot. The plus side is that we eat the other 15% of the mangos, heroically ‘saving’ them.

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That’s the scoops for now. Not so bad huh? Hopefully you got a laugh or smile and disbelief head shake.  Luckily, from all these failures came twice as many lessons. Ok, thank you for reading and participating with my service in this way. Leave comments, questions and ideas below. -Stephen

2 thoughts on “Fail Blog 1: Falling short on the farm :)

  1. Hi Stephen, LOVE this post, we should all talk about our failures more, especially when doing such challenging work. I shared it with the local RPCV group.
    Please check your email – I sent you a question about the okra which we are ready to initiate sending (something else to fail with perhaps?) 🙂 – Peter Marks, SPI

    • Hey Peter, thank you! Definitely, it’s much more bonding to share some failure stories and laugh together than try to compete and see who’s the ‘best.’ Thanks for sharing and following along with my blog. Ok, bring on the succeeding okra! 🙂

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